Beyond the WSF's 'trade fair'


A mixed message — combining celebration and auto-critique — came from the Nairobi World Social Forum, held from January 20-25 in a massive sports complex 10km from the city. The 60,000 registered participants heard triumphalist radical rhetoric and yet, too, witnessed persistent defeats for social justice causes, especially within the WSF's own processes.

According to Firoze Manji, the Kenyan director of the Pambazuka Africa news/analysis portal (<>), "This event had all the features of a trade fair — those with greater wealth had more events in the calendar, larger (and more comfortable) spaces, more propaganda — and therefore a larger voice. Thus the usual gaggle of quasi-donor and international NGOs claimed a greater presence than national organisations — not because what they had to say was more important or more relevant to the theme of the WSF, but because, essentially, they had greater budgets at their command."

Nairobi-based commentator Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem (also writing in Pambazuka) commented: "The WSFs show up Africa's weaknesses whether they are held outside or inside Africa. One of the critical areas is our level of participation and preparedness. A majority of the African participants — even many from Kenya itself — were brought by foreign paymasters or organisations funded by outsiders. They must attend events organised or supported by their sponsors who need to put their 'partners' on display, and the 'partners' in turn need to show their loyalty to their masters."

Blogger Sokari Ekine (<>) wrote about the final WSF event: "Kasha, a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex activist from Sexual Minorities Uganda, went up to the stage and asked to make a statement. She was asked for a copy of what she would be speaking about and gave them her piece. The organisers threw her piece on the floor and refused to allow her to speak. Kasha stood her ground saying she, like everyone else, had a right to speak here at the WSF."

These sobering observations were amplified in a statement by the Social Movements Assembly at a January 24 rally of more than 2000 people: "We denounce tendencies towards commercialisation, privatisation and militarisation of the WSF space. Hundreds of our sisters and brothers who welcomed us to Nairobi have been excluded because of high costs of participation. We are also deeply concerned about the presence of organisations working against the rights of women, marginalised people, and against sexual rights and diversity, in contradiction to the WSF Charter of Principles."

Conflicts included arrests of a dozen low-income people who wanted to get into the event; protests to forcibly open the gates; and the destruction of the notoriously repressive Kenyan interior minister's makeshift restaurant, which had monopolised key space within the Kasarani stadium's grounds.

Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane was a protest leader, but after the first successful break-in by poor Kenyans, reported stiff resistance: "The next day we again planned to storm the gates but found police and army reinforcements at the gates. Those officers carried very big guns. Comrades decided to block the main road until the people were allowed in for free. This action took about half an hour and then the gates were opened."

Kenya Social Forum coordinator Onyango Oloo gracefully confessed the "shame" of progressive Kenyans during the Social Movements Assembly rally. WSF logistical shortcomings reflected the Kenyan left's lost struggles within the host committee, he said.

A political WSF?

According to Oloo, "Social movements, including dozens in Kenya, want to see the WSF being transformed into a space for organising and mobilising against the nefarious forces of international finance capital, neoliberalism and all its local neo-colonial and comprador collaborators".

Can and should the WSF's "open-space" concept be upgraded into something more coherent, either for mobilising around special events such as the June 2-8 summit of the G8 in Rostock, Germany, or establishing a bigger, universalist left-internationalist political project?

In South Africa, the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) has hosted several debates on this question, with at least four points of view emerging. Last July, for example, the great political economist Samir Amin presented the "Bamako Appeal", a January 2006 manifesto that originated at the prior WSF polycentric event, and which combined, as Amin put it, the traditions of socialism, anti-racism/colonialism and (national) development.

Reacting strongly against the Bamako Appeal, CCS student (and Johannesburg anti-privatisation activist) Prishani Naidoo and three comrades criticised its "last century" tone and content, which mirrored "the mutation of the WSF from an arena of encounter for local social movements into an organised network of experts, academics and NGO practitioners".

In contrast, Naidoo and the others praise the "powerful undercurrent of informality in the WSF's proceedings [that] reveals the persistence of horizontal communication between movements, which is not based on mystical views of the revolutionary subject, or in the official discourse of the leaders, but in the life strategies of their participants".

A third position on WSF politics is the classical socialist, party-building approach favoured by Ngwane and other revolutionary organisers. Replying to both Amin and the autonomist critique at the July workshop, Ngwane fretted, on the one hand, about reformist projects that "make us blind to recognise the struggles of ordinary people". On the other hand, though, "I think militancy alone at the local level and community level will not in itself answer questions of class and questions of power". For that a self-conscious socialist cadre is needed, and the WSF is a critical site to transcend localist political upsurges.

A fourth position seeks the 21st century's anti-capitalist "manifesto" in the existing social, labour and environmental movements that are already engaged in excellent transnational social justice struggle. The WSF's greatest potential — so far unrealised — is the possibility of linking dozens of radical movements in various sectors.

Instead, at each WSF the activists seem to disappear into their own workshops: silos with few or no interconnections. Before a Bamako Appeal or any other manifesto is parachuted into the WSF, we owe it to those activists to compile their existing grievances, analyses, strategies and tactics. Sometimes these are simple demands, but often they are also articulated as sectoral manifestos, like the very strong African Water Network of anti-privatisation militants from 40 countries formed in Nairobi.

These four positions are contrasted in a new book — Does the World Social Forum need a Political Programme? — released at the Nairobi WSF by the New Delhi-based Institute for Critical Action: Centre in Movement (CACIM) and CCS.

At a CACIM/CCS workshop in Nairobi, Ngwane made his own appeal: "Ordinary working class and poor people need and create and have a movement of resistance and struggle. They also need and create and have spaces for that movement to breathe and develop. The real question is what place will the WSF have in that reality. What space will there be for ordinary working class and poor people? Who will shape and drive and control the movement? Will it be a movement of NGOs and individual luminaries creating space for themselves to speak of their concern for the poor? Will it be undermined by collaboration with capitalist forces? I think what some of us saw happening in Nairobi posed some of these questions sharply."

[Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society, which together with CACIM has issued a free e-book on WSF politics: <>.]